It may be off by a couple of decades, but 1984 is moving to the nonfiction section. As always, the chocolate ration is going up, we’re still at war with Eurasia (or was it Eastasia?) and, no matter where you are, Big Brother is Watching You, and Alexa is listening in, too.
The novel was off about a few things. Orwell was paranoid enough to imagine the government spying through the TV, but even he wasn’t pessimistic enough to imagine that we’d spend thousands on the latest models, or that we’d be carrying our Telescreens around voluntarily—in our pockets.
Now, a French startup is trying to get Big Brother out of your living room. Snips, a French startup, has announced plans to bring la revolution cryptographique to the world of home devices. If successful, it could replace Alexa or Google Home with decentralized equivalents—no Thought Police involved.
“The Worst Thing On The Internet”
“Our goal is to destroy Alexa,” says Snips’ CEO Dr. Rand Hindi. “That product is the worst f*****g thing that anyone has ever built on the Internet.”
Hindi is typically cool and collected, except when discussing a certain device. “It’s a centralized product that sucks up all the data in your home. It’s a closed ecosystem, developers have NO say in what they can do on it,” he said in a telephone interview. “If you build an app and people use it, Amazon owns the data.”
Normally when you say something to your Google or Amazon-powered smart device, very little of the computation work occurs at home. Instead, voice records are forwarded to centralized, cloud-based database, along with data from thousands of other households.
This allows Google, Amazon, and others to easily fine-tune their algorithms—but it also puts your personal life under the microscope. Depending on what kinds of conversations you have at home, that might be more information than you’re willing to share. No one wants the government to know that they listen to Nickelback.
That’s where Snips comes in. After four years of providing enterprise-level solutions for Voice-Assistant developers, the French startup recently announced “Snips AIR,” its first foray into consumer products. The blockchain-based open source product includes a “private by design” Voice Assistant, which processes all of your requests at home—without disrupting your privacy.
“Our voice assistant runs 100% percent locally, on the device you’re talking to,” Hindi says. “The device itself does the processing of your voice, without any of the data being sent to the cloud for processing.”
Do We Really Need Another Token?
Snips isn’t just trying to produce a single device; it’s also wants to provide a toolkit for third-party voice assistants to be developed in their platform. Creating and incentivizing a developers’ marketplace is part of the reasoning behind the company’s upcoming tokensale.
We’ve learned to be skeptical when tech companies promise yet another blockchain marketplace, but Snips has put a lot of thought into it. In addition to incentivizing developers and makers to contribute to the marketplace, blockchain-based encryption allows progressive development without damaging users’ privacy.
“By combining federated learning, multiparty computation and blockchain,” Dr. Hindi says, “we can guarantee that as a developer you can keep improving the quality of your neural network, as people use it, without ever having people send you data.”
And, unlike most speculative crowdsales, Snips has already done most of the work.
“Unlike most ICO’s, we’ve already built most of it,” Hindi says.
Over the past four years the company says it has already served 14,000 developers, creating 28,000 Voice Assistants—making it the largest community of VA developers outside of Amazon and Google. They’ve already received E22 million in capital and grants, about half of which came from the French Government.
The biggest hurdles remaining are to create blockchain and token economy—with enough developers to keep it going—and the manufacture of required physical devices. “The goal is to have in retail stores in Christmas 2019 a Snips physical hardware device that you could give to your mom.”
That might be a bit optimistic, and when it comes to roadmaps, 2+2 years usually add up to five. However, if Snips does pull it off, 2019 could be doubleplus ungood for Amazon–and Big Brother.
The author is not invested in Snips, but does hold other cryptocurrencies.